Ending a Drought Takes Plenty of Ink

Buckeye Farm Beat

Ohio's last severe drought occurred in 1988. It generated a lot of media coverage, but sometimes that's the only way to turn these things around.

Published on: June 19, 2012

Game on. It’s official. The Columbus Dispatch wrote a cover story that included the word "drought" this morning. It's my experience that other than actual changes in the weather patterns, the best way to get rid of a drought is to write it to death.

As the Dispatch story notes, the worst drought in recent memory occurred in 1988. I was the agribusiness reporter at the Dispatch when that event, which I proclaimed “The Great Drought of 1988,” took place. I can hardly tell you all of the newspaper stories that situation generated. I clearly recall the day that drought became official because my story resulted in my first-ever front page top-of-the-fold lead headline “Drought Sears Ohio Crops,” which might also have been the first and last-ever use of the word “sears” in a headline.

It included the first of numerous photos of farmers looking worriedly at their withered corn crop. Every day there was something new to write about. The weather event triggered intense coverage of a drought insurance situation. Numerous farmers had taken the drought insurance as part of their regular coverage. When the insurer realized how much it might be paying out, it offered the farmers a buyout. I recall interviewing a number of local farmers who took the payout despite the projections of continued dry weather. People thought they were crazy.

By the middle of July I was writing about the drought on a daily basis. I was invited to appear on WOSU’s television show with a panel discussing the drought. I recall telling the audience that the farmers I had talked with were really pretty calm. “It’s their business to understand our climate,” I said as if I knew anything about it. “Dealing with the weather is what they do.”

By the end of July I was off on a tour of the drought states organized by Dennis Hall, Madison County extension agent. Denny got a bus and with about 40 farmers we headed to Purdue to talk with climatologist Jim Newman. Like any good weather guy Jim explained that La Nina had arrived and it was perfectly explainable that a drought came with her. Then we went to Chicago and Iowa. At night I filed stories with my TRS 80 computer and during the day I played euchre of with Fred Yoder and others in the back of the bus.

By the beginning of August the situation was so bad that the governors of the Great Lakes region decided to call a conference to make sure they got in the media spotlight too. While they did talk about just how to divvy up the waters of Lake Erie, I don’t recall much else coming out of it.

Finally, in early August, it got to the point where the only solution was for Richard Lyng, the Secretary of the Unites States Department of Agriculture, to come to Ohio and investigate personally. As I recall he brought with him the promise of interest-free loans to help farmers through the situation. The event was up near Bucyrus or Wooster, I don’t exactly remember. But I do recall the promising gray cloud cover that day. And I know I jockeyed with other photographers to get a good photo of him forcing a shovel into the hard dry ground. But mostly I remember the light rain beginning to fall as he pulled the shovel out the ground.

The drought was broken. Who knows if it was Lyng's shovel or the governors conference, but the rains came. Yields were off, but not completely lost. The guys who took the drought insurance pay off made out. Agriculture moved off the front page. Now it’s back. I look for a lot of ink to be thrown at the current weather trend. Somehow I suspect it will work.